Toynbee on civilization

A little long-winded, perhaps, but not the less insightful for all that. I copied out this quotation back in 1972. It doesn’t seem any the less applicable to the 21st century than it did to the last third of the 20th.

In human terms, how are we to describe… our own Western civilization, or any other of the 10 or 20 civilizations which we can count up on our fingers? In human terms, I should say that each of these civilizations is, while in action, a distinctive attempt at a single great common human experience, or, when it is seen in retrospect, after the action is over, it is a distinctive instance of a single great common human experience. The enterprise or experience is an effort to perform an act of creation. In each of these civilizations, mankind, I think, is trying to rise above mere humanity — above primitive humanity, that is, — toward some higher kind of spiritual life. One cannot depict the goal because it has never been reached, — or, rather, I should say that it has never been reached by any human society. It has, perhaps, been reached by individual men and women. At least, I can think of certain saints and sages…. But if there have been a few transfigured men and women, there has never been such a thing as a civilized society. Civilization, as we know it, is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor. No known civilization has ever reached the goal of civilization yet. There has never been a communion of saints on earth. In the least uncivilized society at its least uncivilized moment, the vast majority of its members have remained very near indeed to the primitive human level. And no society has ever been secure of holding such ground as it has managed to gain in its spiritual advance.
Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial

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